20 November 2014

Heroes and heroism are great but…

This is the eighth in a series of articles on rebels and rebellion written for the FREE section of 'The Nation'.  'FREE' is dedicated to youth and youthfulness.

A hero is someone who does something totally unexpected, something that no one even imagines of doing and something that can even cost the person his life.  Some heroes live to tell the tale but often only after they have lost a limb or two or their eyesight or hearing.  Most perish.  Heroes and heroism are remembered long after the battle is either won or lost.  Heroes and heroism inspire other to be brave; they nurture in the rebel the quality called ‘sacrifice’.  For the greater good, of course. 

History is full of acts of heroism.  Indeed, heroism can be said to have changed the course of history.   Then there are heroic acts which take our breath away, make us believe that yes, indeed, the course of history has been changed.  It is much later that we find out that no, nothing much has changed. 

Think ‘Tank Man’.  That’s the young man who stood defiantly in front of a line of armored cars in China the occupation of Tiananmen Square.  ‘The Tank Man’ (his identity is yet to be established as is his fate), young, frail and determined stopped the advance of the tanks.  Back then in 1989 the term ‘going viral’ didn’t exist but that’s what happened to the picture of the Tank Man facing the tanks.  It is widely considered one of the iconic images of the 20th Century.  He stopped those tanks on June 5, 1989.  A week later it was all over.  Hundreds were killed.  Some say around 200 and other say 800.  We are left with a photograph with heroism written all over it.  That’s it. 

On July 10, 1991, Lance Corporal Hasalaka Gamini gave his life to protect his fellow soldiers at Elephant Pass.  This was in 1991.  His act of heroism broke the LTTE siege on the Elephant Pass garrison.  In April 2000 Elephant Pass was captured by the LTTE.  It is hard to predict certain things.  That’s why it is hard to figure out a heroism-nekatha or an auspicious time to be a hero.  This is why rebels talk of heroes, put up their posters in their rooms, use heroic images as ‘wall paper’ and celebrate them in one way or another.  Nothing wrong in that.  After all we won’t be saying ‘futile’ if the Tank Man’s defiance triggered something that ended in the rout of the Chinese Communist Party would we? 

It is that uncertainty that makes heroic moment romantic.  If the heroic coin has romance inscribed on one side, on the other it is marked ‘gamble’.  So you win some, you lose some.  In the clash of arms, the thunder of gunfire, the screams of the maimed and dying, some calculations just cannot be made. 

In general, then, the rebel can certainly fantasize about heroic moments but dwelling too much on such things would be over-indulgent and distracting.  You can’t stop a gushing river by tossing a stick into the flowing water.  There are waves that are too powerful to resist by digging feet into sand.  There’s a time to stand ground.  There’s a time to step aside.  One does not wait or plan for the heroic moment.  It comes and it comes only to those who privilege the mind over heart but not at the cost of burying the heart and love forever.  Heroism is irrational.  And yet it works.  It hangs on a sliver of the overall rebelling logic and is not resident at the core of engagement.  It is not revolutionary to bet on it. 

But keep heart because however the low the odds are that heroism will result in gaining significant ground, keeping heart means love hasn’t perished.  When heart and love die, there’s no point rebelling.  That’s another story of course. 

Other articles in this series: